September 23, 1800 – Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush: “We Are To Be Pitied”

Gabriel, born in 1776, was a slave owned by Thomas Henry Prosser, who had a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Prosser was reputed to be a cruel master, but he did hire out some of his skilled slaves to other masters in and around Richmond, including Gabriel, who was trained as a blacksmith. In Richmond, Gabriel interacted not only with other hired slaves, but free blacks and white laborers. He also became exposed to the freedom rhetoric of the American Revolutionary movement, and heard news of the uprising of slaves in Saint Domingue. He came to believe that if American slaves rose and fought for their rights, poor whites and Native Americans would join them.

Gabriel began to recruit others, and by August of 1800 had formed an “army.” They were set to revolt on August 30, but a torrential rain made roads and bridges impassable, so they decided to wait until the next evening. But by that time, a few slaves, fearful of repercussions, told their masters about the plan. Governor James Monroe was alerted, and sent out white patrols to round up the rebels.

Governor (and later President) James Monroe

Governor (and later President) James Monroe

They were tried and convicted, and 26 slaves were executed by hanging; one more died by hanging while in custody. Of those not hanged, some were transported to other states, some were found not guilty, and a few were pardoned. By law, slaveholders had to be reimbursed by the state for lost property, so in cases where slaves were executed or transported, their masters were reimbursed for their total worth declared by the court. Virginia paid over $8900 to slaveholders for the executed slaves.

But the “trauma” to the whites was considerable.

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush:

You will hear an account of an attempt at insurrection in this state. I am looking with anxiety to see what will be it’s effect on our state. We are truly to be pitied.”

Those poor slave holders!

You can read the entire letter here.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson


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